Archive for March 10th, 2011

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Mar
11

10 Step SEO # 3: Meta Tags

Welcome to the third installment of our 10 part SEO series. Today, we’ll roll two steps into one post and talk about meta tags and their cousins title tags. I’m going to assume you know nothing about them. If you already do, feel free to skip ahead.

A meta tag is a little snippet of HTML code that only spiders (such as search engine spiders) can see. Well, actually anybody can see them, if you are looking at the HTML code, which is something you can do by finding “View Code”,  “View Source Code,” “Page Code,” or similar in your browsers menu.  All of the meta tags can be found inside the head tag, which means between a <head> and a </head>.

Here’s what it looks like:

Actually, any sort of information can be conveyed to the search engines by way of a meta tag. Most of engines are only set up to recognize a few of them. In the illustration, you can see three meta tags, named “Description,” “Keywords,” and “Author.” For the purpose of this discussion, we’re going to count another tag as a meta tag, although it technically isn’t one: the “Title” tag. (If you’re interested, it’s not a meta tag because the information in it appears visibly in the browser, although I lump it in with meta tags because the title tag information is displayed outside the browser main section, right at the top of the window.) As it happens, the “Title” tag is the most important of them all, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

Historically, the meta tags that have had some influence on search performance are title, description, and keywords. There was a time, way back in the early years of this millennium, when search engines read the keywords meta tag to actually determine what a web page was about. Hoo-hoo! Party time for SEOs! All you had to do was stick a few highly searched terms in the keywords meta tag and you were golden! “Free MP3,” “sex,” and “software” started showing up in the keywords meta tag of all sorts of web sites that nothing whatsoever to do with any of those things. Since almost no real people ever look at source code, no harm was done to a company’s reputation, and search spiders ranked, say, leading department store sites for searches on “Free MP3.”

The “Keywords” meta tag was the first one to be almost universally devalued, then finally, ignored completely. (I still use it, but for a different reason: it’s a convenient place for me to keep a page’s primary keywords in case I ever need to remember what the heck I was thinking about this one of the 425 pages I optimized on some random site and don’t have my spreadsheet handy.) So, scratch the keywords meta tag. I has zero (0) value in today’s search environment.

Then there is the “Description” tag. This tag has also lost a lot weight over the years due to abuse by enthusiastic SEOs. However, it does serve a valuable search function. In many engines (other than Google, who tends to do things their own way), the description meta tag is what gets displayed in a search result (along with the title tag). That means it’s one of your best shots at convincing a searcher to visit your site. Ever web page should have a short description meta tag that contains an important keyword and is, well, descriptive. Google calls these little pieces of info “snippets” and uses the description meta tag sometimes. They seem to prefer picking a sample of text from the page themselves as the snippet (which sometimes leads to pretty funny search results). Still, you should put some effort into description meta tags.

All the other meta tags are there for uses other than SEO keyword ranking. An “Author” meta tag will help the webmaster keep track of who created what content. A “Robots” tag can be used to tell search spiders not to index a particular page.  Etcetera.  If a webmaster has a use for some weird meta tag, they will use it. But there aren’t any others currently in use by major search engines. Subject to change without notice, of course.

10 Step SEO # 4: Title tag

Now, the honorary meta tag, “Title.”  This little sucker is deadly useful. If you have a web page it absolutely, without question, doubtlessly, not-subject-to-debatedly, seriously, no-kiddingly, positively, needs to have a concise, unique, relevant, and descriptive Title.

This is the primary identification used by search engines to label your page. It shows up as the link in a search result. It carries significant weight in terms of ranking for a keyword phrase. It is your very best shot at convincing a potential customer to visit. It can be an effective reinforcer of branding. So.

  • Concise. Search spiders are typically configured to only read and/or display the first 120 characters or so of a title tag. Google only displays 60 characters. So try to your titles under 60.
  • Unique. No two pages on your site should ever have the same title. Not ever. I will go even further and suggest that you don’t begin any two or more page titles with  the same character string. For instance, your brand name. 10,000 page titles that are all “ACME Medical Laboratories: keyword here look like poop when you put them all in a row. They also tell the search engine that you care more about your brand name than you do about your content.And think about it. You are probably ranking pretty well for your brand name anyway.
  • Relevant. Your page title must must must must be relevant to the content on the page. No really. Must.
  • Descriptive. This is really just another way of saying “Your page title needs to contain (or even just be) the single best keyword for that page.” My most frequent title strategy is “Keyword here |ACME,” or some similar variation. That tells a search spider that the page is about the keyword. And there’s just enough branding to keep your MBA CEO happy.

So, there you have it, Bob’s yer uncle. Meta tags in one easy lesson. Next week, the mysterious and sexy Headline tag.

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